It’s Time to Worry About Our National Doe Harvest, Especially in These States

September 27, 2023 By: Lindsay Thomas Jr.
doe harvest

In 1988, faced with declining hunter numbers and too many deer, our founders and leaders called deer hunters to action: reduce pressure on bucks and increase harvest pressure on does. Deer hunters responded and led one of the greatest success stories in modern wildlife conservation. But NDA never sleeps on our watch, and I think it’s time again for a national wake-up call on doe harvest. 

NDA’s 2023 Deer Report contains the evidence for renewed emphasis on doe harvest. Those statistics from the 2021-22 hunting season reveal declining doe harvest in a shocking number of states and regions. Let’s look at the big picture before drilling down to the state level to see who’s up and who’s down in wise deer management. 

A Note About “Antlerless” Deer Harvest: Many states don’t separate harvest estimates into buck and doe. Instead, for herd management purposes, they include buck fawns in the “antlerless” group with doe fawns and adult does. So, a “balanced” ratio of one antlerless deer harvested per antlered buck is, in reality, fewer females than males harvested. But with no better way to evaluate trends in doe harvest, I use antlerless-to-antlered ratios here (and we use it in our annual Deer Report) to discuss national and state harvest trends.

Doe Harvest in Review

American hunters killed more antlerless deer than antlered bucks for the first time in 1999, a huge milestone that was celebrated by this organization and its members. Doe harvests remained high for many seasons afterward. That trend faded by 2015, and since then we have struggled to kill more antlerless than antlered deer, as you can see in the chart below. 

There were good reasons doe harvest declined in many areas in the past decade. Serious outbreaks of hemorrhagic disease (EHD and bluetongue viruses), severe winters, and other issues led hunters and wildlife agencies to ring alarm bells about deer numbers in many areas. But those issues do not persist year to year. The national deer harvest is a big ship with a lot of inertia, and changes in course take years to realize. Just as it took years to get hunters on board with doe harvest, it is proving difficult to get them back on board after the highly publicized alarm calls of a decade ago.

Other factors present headwinds as well. Hunter numbers continue to decline, and the average hunter who remains active is taking fewer deer. In our 2021 Deer Report, we found only 41% of deer hunters nationally killed at least one deer in 2019, which was down from 50% in 2011. Only 18% of deer hunters killed more than one deer in 2019, down from 23% in 2011.

As a result, we are now seeing doe harvest drop in many states and regions. Like NDA’s founders, we still face declining hunter numbers. And now there’s an added threat: CWD continues to spread across the landscape. High-density deer herds exceeding the carrying capacity of their habitat are like dry, neglected woods when embers of disease drift in. It is more urgent than ever that we use doe harvest wherever appropriate to maintain healthy deer populations in balance with their habitat. 

Doe Harvest Warning Signs

The total 2021 antlerless harvest declined from the previous season in a shocking 31 of 37 eastern states (84%). Only five states increased their 2021 antlerless harvest over the previous season: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine and Mississippi.

Further, 24 of 37 states (65%) were down from their five-year average in antlerless harvest. We include a five-year average for deer harvest in our annual Deer Report because factors like acorn crops cause annual variations in deer harvest. A five-year average smooths out minor fluctuations and shows you how the recent season compares to the average for the past five years, a more telling comparison.

Not every deer hunter needs to harvest does. It’s a site-specific determination. But most of us should at least be taking a doe for every buck we harvest. Many of us should take more than one doe per buck we harvest.

Finally, in analyzing state deer harvests, we calculate the ratio of antlerless-to-antlered deer in the harvest. Out of 37 eastern whitetail states, 22 of them (59%) killed fewer than a “balanced” 1.0 antlerless deer per antlered buck in 2021 (Remember, 1.0 is actually fewer females than males harvested). Two landed at exactly 1.0, and 13 (35%) killed more than 1.0. With a few exceptions for specific habitat and herd limitations, most of these states should be at 1.0 or above.

I looked at all three of these categories – total antlerless harvest, five-year average, and antlerless-per-antlered in the 2021-22 deer harvest – to highlight individual states below. If I don’t mention your state, you can review complete data for all states by clicking here to see our 2023 Deer Report.

Who’s Up and Down in the Southeast

🚨 Tennessee. The 2021 antlerless harvest of 58,000 was 22% down from the previous season, the highest rate of decline in the Southeast. That was also 17% down from the five-year average. This put Tennessee at a 0.8 ratio, below the Southeast average and well below where Tennessee needs to be considering the significant CWD issue in the western half of the state. This Just In: We just received 2022-23 harvest data from Tennessee for a new Deer Report. Fortunately, the antlerless harvest jumped by 28% to 74,000. However, the buck harvest also jumped significantly, so Tennessee was still at 0.8 antlerless per antlered bucks last year.

🚨 South Carolina fell below a balanced ratio in 2021 to 0.9, following a significant decline of 13% to 87,500 antlerless deer. This figure was 2% below the five-year average. With CWD next door in North Carolina, it’s time for South Carolinians to use that extra long rifle season and get back above water on doe harvest. If you need a place to donate venison, NDA’s South Carolina Branches work with Hunters for the Hungry to put venison snack sticks in school kids’ backpacks, and they’d love to get donations.

⚠️ Florida. Going strictly by the numbers, Florida has the lowest antlerless/antlered ratio in the Southeast at 0.4, and the 2021 antlerless harvest was down 22% from the five-year average. This is a special case that doesn’t warrant a red flag. With marginal deer habitat in much of the state, Florida’s deer herd can’t sustain a heavy doe harvest without shrinking. But Florida’s best deer habitat is in the north and in the Panhandle – right where CWD was discovered this year. As a region, Panhandle deer hunters need to maintain adequate doe harvest wherever possible. NDA’s Panhandle Branch supports Florida Hunters for the Hungry Inc. and Panama City’s Share the Harvest. Donate deer at the Deer Shack in Panama City.

🏆 Georgia. I’m proud of my fellow Peach State hunters. We led the nation in 2021 with the highest antlerless-per-antlered harvest rate at 1.7, and we were runner-up in antlerless harvest per 100 deer hunters at 76. This fall, Georgia DNR has tweaked the regulations to keep doe harvest trending upward by reducing the number of buck-only days and even allowing doe harvest on opening weekend of gun season in many counties previously restricted. With CWD now in the Florida panhandle, staying on top of doe harvest is one good way my home state can prepare itself for the potential arrival of the disease.

🏆 Alabama and Mississippi. Both of these states run near the top in the nation in total antlerless harvest, per square mile, and antlerless-per-antlered ratio. Mississippi was in fact No. 1 in antlerless deer harvested per 100 deer hunters at 79! But what is more, both states are trending strongly upward. Their 2021 antlerless harvests were up from the previous season and up significantly from their five-year average. This is great news in any state but especially for two states fighting CWD.

Up and Down in the Northeast

🚨 West Virginia. At 41,000, the 2021 antlerless harvest was down 13% from the prior year and is 12% below the five-year average (and down from as high as 75,000 in 2013). The antlerless-to-antlered ratio of 0.6 is near the bottom nationwide and the lowest for any state in the Northeast except for three New England states that were at 0.5. West Virginia’s deer herd is more productive than those in New England, and CWD prevalence is growing in the state’s eastern management zones. West Virginians, you’re in red flag territory.

⚠️ Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey. When I first reviewed the 2021 Deer Report data, I gave these three states a red flag as fair warning. All three maintain commendable antlerless-to-antlered ratios at 1.2, 1.4 and 1.3 respectively – but all three were sliding. All three saw double-digit percentage declines over the previous season and from the five-year average. Then, in the last few days we received 2022-23 harvest data from all three states, and all three increased their antlerless harvest last year (Delaware +47%, Maryland +14% and New Jersey +5%). I’ll upgrade the red flag to a caution sign. Keep it growing, y’all!

New England States: If you study our Deer Report, you’ll see several New England states trending down recently in antlerless harvest. We’re not calling them out here, because these deer live at the northern extreme of whitetail habitat where winterkill is a legitimate factor. They can’t sustain normal doe harvests that other states should be achieving. As a region, the Northeast posted a 1.1 ratio of antlerless-to-antlered, higher than both the Southeast and Midwest at 1.0 each.

🏆 Pennsylvania. At 1.6 antlerless-per-antlered, Pennsylvania was second only to Georgia nationwide. Their 2021 antlerless harvest of 231,000 was second in the nation behind Texas, and they had the highest antlerless harvest per square mile of habitat at 5.2. Though the 2021 harvest was down slightly from 2020, it’s still 5% above their five-year average.

Up and Down in the Midwest

🚨 Michigan. While there are several states in the Midwest that should get a caution flag due to doe harvests on a slippery slope, Michigan is a standout for performing below potential. At 0.8 antlerless per antlered deer in 2021, Michigan is the only Great Lakes state that fell below 1.0 in this ratio. For a state with a significant CWD fight on its hands in the Lower Peninsula, this number needs to be higher. Michigan’s buck harvest has been growing. That’s fine, but it’s time for the doe harvest to catch up and surpass it. This Just In: Fresh data for 2022-23 just arrived from Michigan, and it doesn’t help. The antlerless harvest fell another 24% from 171,000 in 2021 to 131,000, and the antlerless/antlered ratio fell to 0.76. In fact, on September 21 Michigan DNR sent out an appeal from deer biologist Chad Stewart asking Michigan hunters to take more does. “If you are in the Lower Peninsula, we simply aren’t taking enough does during the season to control the growth of our deer herd in many areas,” Chad wrote. 

🚨 Wisconsin. Though hovering at a 1.0 antlerless-per-antlered ratio, Wisconsin’s 2021 antlerless harvest was down 14% from 2020 and off the five-year average by 6%. If there’s a frontline in the battle against CWD in the east, most of it lies in Wisconsin. In a state with incredibly productive deer herds and growing CWD prevalence, doe harvest is critical. NDA’s Coulee Country Branch is operating a Venison Connection in Monroe County connecting venison donors with families looking for venison, with prizes for donation incentives. If your freezer is full, take a doe for the Venison Connection.

🚨 Kentucky. At 0.9 antlerless-per-antlered, Kentucky wasn’t the lowest in the Midwest (that distinction went to South Dakota at 0.6), but the concern is a three-year long slide. Kentucky’s 2021 antlerless harvest was 11% down from 2020 and 12% below the five-year average. This Just In: Fresh numbers we just received showed the antlerless harvest jumped by 2% last year. That’s fine, but the ratio dropped a point to 0.8.

🏆 Iowa. At 1.3 antlerless deer per antlered buck in 2021, Iowa led the Midwest in this ratio. Their 35 antlerless deer per 100 hunters was above the Midwest average of 28. Trendwise, the state is essentially flat (down 1% off the five-year average), and that’s just fine for a state where hunters are checking the doe-harvest box. Keep it up! Hunters often cite the Hawkeye State for its outstanding bucks. They should recognize this quality is related to impressive management efforts on the antlerless side. 

🏆 Ohio. Like Iowa, Ohio’s antlerless harvest is statistically flat (up 2% from their five-year average), but it’s in a strong position. For every 100 Ohioans who deer hunted in 2021, 37 antlerless deer were killed, the highest rate in the Midwest. Their antlerless-to-antlered ratio is 1.2, second highest in the Midwest behind Iowa and one reason the Buckeye State is such a popular deer-hunting destination.

Doe Nation Donation

Not every deer hunter needs to harvest does. It’s a site-specific determination. Where deer herds are below the carrying capacity of the habitat, doe harvest should be minimized or avoided. Nationally, very few deer hunters face that situation. Most of us should at least be taking a doe for every buck we harvest. Many of us should take more than one doe per buck we harvest. Just because your state didn’t get a red flag here does not mean you’re off the hook. Most states currently need to increase doe harvest. (If you need more help determining how many does you should harvest locally, if any, click here.)

Natalie Fries got her first deer ever on an NDA Field to Fork hunt in Missouri, with her mentor Zach Smith. If you’ve got enough venison in your freezer, mentoring a new hunter to help them get a doe for the freezer is a great way to maintain doe harvest.

The problem is visible in hunter success rates: Most of us either can’t or choose not to kill more deer. Is one or maybe two deer in the freezer each season enough for most families? I suspect that’s a limitation. This is where venison donation programs come in.

“We need a better national outlet for hunters to donate venison,” said my NDA colleague Kip Adams. “We’re not going to solve this problem until we make it as easy as possible for hunters to donate venison, because there’s just not enough people shooting deer.”

As an example, Kip mentioned Maryland. Each year, Kip and his son Bo hunt with a friend in Maryland who needs help with doe harvest. Last year Bo killed three does on the hunt and donated all three through Maryland’s Farmers & Hunters Feeding the Hungry program. The program is easy to access and free. 

“All states have some variety of venison donation program, but they all need more funding,” said Kip. “Donation opportunities need to be more widely available, and they need to be free. Most hunters are not going to shoot extra does if it costs them money to donate them.”

Regardless of whether you donate venison or share with neighbors and family, don’t let a full freezer stop you from taking another doe this year if you have the time and the tags. With fewer hunters and numerous herd health issues facing deer, it is more important than ever for each of us to take a locally appropriate number of does each season. 

Our deer herd and habitat watchfulness never sleeps. The National Deer Association is officially raising a red flag: It’s time again for a national emphasis on adequate doe harvest.

About Lindsay Thomas Jr.:

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is NDA's Chief Communications Officer. He has been a member of the staff since 2003. Prior to that, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.